#language & literature
If the protagonist of this non-fiction book didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent her. The story of Lara, an inhabitant of a small village on the border of Chechnya and Georgia, explains the contemporary world with surprising clarity.
All Lara’s Wars is a very intimate story, which can be easily imagined as a theatrical monologue. The author actually talks, with minor exceptions, to only one character, who simply tells him the story of her life, sitting in a McDonald’s; a small, quiet, ordinary story into which, almost imperceptibly, all anxieties of the contemporary world managed to creep in – war, terrorism, death.
Like The Trumpeter from Tembisa, a book whose parallel character, a manufacturer of vuvuzelas, was more important than the elusive president, the so-called ordinary man is in the centre of All Lara’s Wars, too. This time it’s a woman, Lara, who lives in the valley of Pankisi on the frontier of Georgia and Chechnya. The valley is a beautiful and idyllic place, untouched by the great conflicts storming through its surroundings. It’s not particularly religious – its inhabitants are more devoted to their traditions than religious dogmas, although some of their customs – such as absolute obedience to the elder members of the community – are so strict that they resemble doctrinal imperatives. The people aren’t very concerned about their unclear ethnic identity – up until a time.
Up until a time, as the ‘unclear’ fairly tale Jagielski narrates in the first pages of the book is doomed to failure – lost in collision with the black-and-white, severe religious narrative which soon claims the valley. Jagielski skilfully presents how the appearance of Chechnyan partisans fleeing from war triggers the emergence of questions that were never asked before – who are you? How do you pray? Are you with us or against us?
Lara’s sons are among the young boys who eagerly soak up the teachings and religious stories of the fighters. Even though their mother, willing to provide them a good life, sends the teenage boys to Europe, their fate is, in a sense, already settled. They’re condemned to live a life of second-class citizens. Europe, which has no counternarrative to offer, will lose the battle for their souls. Szamil and Raszid find their story in the ‘holy war’ in Syria that they will go to.
Nevertheless, All Lara’s Wars is not a story about war and jihad written from the perspective of the participants. The titular wars belong to Lara – a powerless witness losing control over her world. A mother who embarks on the exactly same journey as the volunteers going to Syria, but for the sake of taking one of them – her own son – away from the war. A woman, a former actress, who looks at the events surprised, helpless, uncomprehending, but also, in some deep sense, free of prejudice and not prone to simplifications – above all, she’s looking at her own children.
It’s hard to deny that the world she’s watching possesses some sort of seductive power. Even desperate Lara is able to see that her son looks happy and fulfilled in the position of a respected warrior. In the war, he found something (a sacrum?) that the world he previously lived in denied him. At the same time – which is visible thanks to Jagielski’s masterful narration – he remains a blinded fundamentalist. Paradoxically, he evokes some kind of compassion.
It is in this tender, affectionate perspective – of a mother on a war, a mother of jihadi fighters – that the marvellousness of Jagielski’s account lies. The story of Raszid and Szamil explained by Lara allows for a tracking of their evolution in its entire complexity. It also allows for comprehension – not necessarily of two men seduced by violence, but certainly of the path that led them to Aleppo.
Jagielski is a perfect transmitter of Lara’s story. With huge empathy, characteristic of everything he writes, he enters into the motivations of a despaired mother and tragic character, blindly fighting the global, incomprehensible forces.
All Lara's Wars
He produces his narration in hushed tones – just like Lara must have done in McDonald’s. There is one quality that surely cannot be ascribed to Jagielski’s writing – flashiness. The author stays away from showing off and drama. The third-person narration is traditional and calm. This is a well thought out choice – the lack of elaborate formal solutions is a good counterbalance to the protagonist’s tragedy.
Sometimes the lukewarm temperature of the story puts the reader to sleep like a long train journey. This is particularly true for the description of life in the valley, which Jagielski observes as if through a telescope, like a classic nineteenth-century narrator.
The peaceful pace of the book doesn’t make it any less unsettling. It provokes thoughts about matters which are very relevant today. In All Lara's Wars Jagielski masters the craft of a reporter as the explainer of the world. The intimacy of the story does not hinder the very strong impression that Jagielski managed to peek behind the world’s veil – a veil that everybody wishes to uncover so greatly.
All Lara's Wars
Publisher: Znak, Kraków 2015
Author: Aleksandra Lipczak, translation: Natalia Sajewicz